In honor of Black History Month, we here at ShearShare are excited to explore the history of black entrepreneurship in the United States. As a black-owned and black-founded business, we are humbled to be part of this legacy of men and women, who, with a combination of ingenuity and resilience, left their mark on the history of entrepreneurship in this country.
What follows is a list that aims to celebrate the achievements of just a few of these individuals. Some of them have become household names, but far too many have not. This Black History Month, learn with us about the long history of black entrepreneurship. And, as always, be sure to support black-owned businesses in your own community.
John T. Ward
His name may not be the most familiar on this list, but John T. Ward’s story is a perfect stand-in for the long, rich history of black entrepreneurship. 140 years-old and going strong, the moving company he founded in 1881 – E.E. Ward Moving & Storage in Columbus, Ohio – is the oldest black-owned business in the United States.
E.E. Ward got its start during the Civil War, when John T. Ward was contracted to transport supplies for the US Army. (He had previously gained experience as a conductor for the Underground Railroad!)
Although the business has transformed greatly over the years, switching from carriages to automobiles in the early 1900s, the legacy that John T. Ward built continues to thrive to this day. The company’s current owners, Brian and Dominique Brooks, are proud of the historic legacy of the business. “We want to see this company through the next 100 years,” says Dominique.
Madam C.J. Walker
Born to formerly-enslaved sharecropper parents just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Madam C.J. Walker went on to become “the first Black woman millionaire in America.” Her life is an inspiring one, defined just as much by her personal ingenuity as by the adverse circumstances under which she thrived.
Madam Walker – born Sarah Breedlove – was inspired to invent her famous “Walker System” for hair care after a scalp condition caused her to lose much of her own hair. Walker built this system into an empire of beauty and hair care products in a time when most companies in the industry were white-owned.
She was relentlessly innovative: not only did she stand out by emphasizing the health qualities of her products, but she built fierce brand loyalty by marketing directly to black women. Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and single mother, Madam Walker remains a sterling example to black entrepreneurs everywhere.
So much of the history of popular music in America – and the recording industry that has grown around it – was developed by black musicians and entrepreneurs. Few people are more synonymous with this history than Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan.
Like many entrepreneurs, Berry Gordy wore a lot of different hats early in his career. He worked in an auto plant, served in the army, and was even a prize fighter for a few years! He finally founded the label that would become Motown in the late 50s, introducing the world to such iconic artists as Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson Five.
Not only has Gordy become an institution in popular culture, but the business practices he pioneered – maintaining a consistent “Motown” sound for all of his artists, introducing black artists into the mainstream at the height of the Civil Rights Era – shaped the recording industry for years to come.
Oprah’s name is unquestionably the most recognizable here, but no list of black entrepreneurs would be complete without this media mogul who, in 2003, became the first African-American woman to become a billionaire.
Oprah’s early life was marred by poverty, struggle, and sexual abuse. Nonetheless, she withstood the punches that the world inflicted upon her, excelling in school and landing her first on-air broadcasting job at age 17. Her rise was meteoric, from co-hosting a local morning show in Nashville to leading the number one talk show in the country in 1986.
The whole world fell in love with Oprah’s empathetic, outgoing personality, and over the subsequent decades she built a media empire based on a personal brand of spirituality, kindness, and philanthropy. Today, Oprah is a national treasure, her very name synonymous with success and excellence.
Dr. Tye Caldwell & Courtney Caldwell
The most recent names on this list are our very own Dr. Tye and Courtney Caldwell, creator of the world’s first on-demand salon and barbershop space rental app, ShearShare. Like other black entrepreneurs throughout history, Tye and Courtney leveraged an ambitious idea, combined with a strong head for business, to succeed in an industry ripe for innovation.
Arriving in the hair care industry with multiple decades of experience, Dr. Tye and Courtney shared a common vision to empower independent stylists and keep small businesses alive.
From this goal was born ShearShare, which helps both individual hair care professionals and salons maximize their earning potential. Winner of the 2016 Startup of the Year Award at Innovate Celebrate and featured in publications from Fortune to Forbes, Tye and Courtney are a testament to the power of creativity and clarity of vision in black entrepreneurship.
Obviously, this list is far from exhaustive. For every name mentioned here, there are a hundred more who have achieved great success despite all the obstacles they have faced. The story is far from over, too: studies show that the percentage of black-owned businesses has increased by more than 30% over the last two decades. In addition, 36% of black-owned businesses are headed by women.
Black entrepreneurs continue to innovate and thrive today. Baptiste Beauty, founded by Jazzy Baptiste, specializes in makeup specifically designed for women of color. CLLCTVE, from Kelsey Davis, is a platform connecting brands directly with Gen-Z content creators. These are just a few of the modern-day founders carrying the torch of black entrepreneurship, following in the footsteps of the resilient pioneers who have gone before them.
John T Ward: https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/04/success/ee-ward-black-owned-business/index.html
Madam C.J. Walker: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker
Berry Gordy Jr. : https://www.biography.com/musician/berry-gordy-jr
Oprah Winfrey: https://achievement.org/achiever/oprah-winfrey/